In 1803, Martina Parra, a poor Colombian woman, was accused of being a hermaphrodite by her female lover, Juana Maria. Under Spanish colonialism, such a condition was considered a crime against nature and punishable by law. The false accusation sent Parra into an invasive legal process including a lengthy trial and multiple examinations by doctors who grew increasingly perplexed by her condition.
Two centuries later, Carlos Motta was perusing a dark and dingy corner of the Archivo General de la Nación in Bogotá, Columbia, when he came across records of Parra's intimate investigation. As a conceptual artist with a political bent, Motta instantly realized her story's power to expose the effects of cultural colonialism on gender and sexuality in South America.
This week, works of video and sculpture based on Parra's plight, along with other narratives of accused nefandus (a term the Spanish Inquisition used to refer to sexual acts considered unacceptable), form the foundation of the 38-year-old artist's new exhibit at Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), "Histories for Another Future."
The exhibit serves perfect examples of Motta's "aggressive, political approach," curator Maria Elena Ortiz explains, especially when it comes to uncovering and shedding light on the lingering effects of cultural colonialism in Latin America and the Caribbean.
"As a curator, I am interested in contemporary artists addressing the complexities of our moment," Ortiz explains. "That's what Carlos does."
Together with Ortiz, Motta has assembled the show, composed of four videos and more than 20 miniature gold statues. As a whole, the exhibit addresses how pre-Andean concepts of gender and sexuality were eradicated in the face of their Spanish conquerors' staunch Catholic moralism.
That's a personal subject matter for the artist, who learned to identify with oppressed and repressed social groups early in life. Motta came out as a gay man in the religious and socially conservative Colombia of the 1990s, a period in his life that launched a lifetime of exploring the erasure of minority sexualities, identities, and other cultures by the straight, white, cis male majority.
"Carlos' project [at PAMM] creates a moment in which we can reconsider differences and ideas that for me when growing up were considered taboo," Ortiz explains. "I strongly believe that as a generation, we should always be striving for equality, and culture is a great tool to do exactly that."
Influenced by an earlier generation of Latin American conceptual artists who looked to disrupt social codes and expose the lingering repercussions of power and ideology in the region, Motta's work has always been ideologically motivated. After graduating from Bard College in 2003 and the Whitney Independent Study Program in 2006, he developed an interest in photography. He was particularly fascinated by the eye behind the camera that actively selects what to focus on — what's presented in the foreground and what's lost to the fuzzy background. Those decisions, in his estimation, are inherently political.
Though his work has been shown at established venues such as Tate Modern, the New Museum, the Guggenheim, and MoMA/PS1 Contemporary Art Center, Motta doesn't shy away from pushing the contextual limits of art. His videos for The Good Life (La Buena Vida, 2008), part of an exhibition at La Fundación Alzate Avendaño in Bogotá, were uploaded to a website where they became an interactive cyber-installation. Motta is also a big believer in speeches, symposiums, and talks that transform art into education. His 2011 project We Who Feel Differently — a database of issues in queer culture around the world — was presented as an online platform, a book, and an installation and series of performances at New York's New Museum.
Working at the intersections of history, culture, and politics, Motta looks to actively revise a colonial history written largely from the colonizers' point of view. In the videos Deseos (Desires, 2015) and The Nefandus Trilogy (2013) — composed of Nefandus, Naufragios (Shipwreck), and La Visión de los Vencidos (The Defeated), all part of PAMM's exhibit — he creates narratives inspired by real-life figures such as Parra who were persecuted for their sexual orientation.
Set alongside the video pieces is an installation composed of miniature gold sculptures collectively titled Towards a Homoerotic Historiography. They are the artist's reconstruction of similar pre-Andean sculptures that were collected by archaeologists and anthropologists at museums and universities throughout Latin America — until they were destroyed for their perceived depravity by the powers that be.
By reproducing these controversial effigies, Motta exposes the mechanism by which homosexuality and homoeroticism were erased from the contemporary understanding of pre-Andean history. Working in miniature, he plays with the scale and forces the viewers to look more deeply at the objects themselves, as well as the issues at hand.
Though revisionism of the type Motta expounds is in vogue at universities and within politically driven contemporary artists, there are pitfalls to glossing over centuries of established history. But the artist straddles the line between narratives, never giving overwhelming heft to one side or the other, simply offering alternatives to the established status quo.
"I always say that one has to be careful, because sometimes when one strongly abides to the left side of things, then one ends up at the right side again," Ortiz explains. "Luckily, I do not think Carlos is there yet."
For PAMM, the collaboration with Motta comes at a time when the institution tries to both establish itself as a fairly recent addition to the national art scene and serve the local community by highlighting artists from Latin America and the Caribbean, a demographic typically overlooked by the art establishment. "Histories for the Future" is one small step toward reasserting a lost history and breaking ground for the fledgling museum's future.
Carlos Motta: "Histories for the Future"
Friday, July 15, through January 15, 2017, at Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-375-3000; pamm.org. Admission costs $16 for adults and $12 for seniors, students, and children ages 7 to 18. Children 6 and younger, active U.S. military, and PAMM members get in free. Admission is free every second Saturday and first Thursday of the month. The museum will host a preview and happy-hour reception on its terrace Thursday, July 14, from 6 to 9 p.m. Hours are Monday and Tuesday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.